Truth to Power

Parashat Toldot 5781

by Meir Sendor

Yitzhak Avinu, in Kabbalah, is associated with the Sefirah Din, divine Judgment, the quality that discerns reality and accords to every person and every creature what they really deserve. Yet in this week’s parashah, the one parashah devoted to Yitzhak, from beginning to end the theme is deception. The Torah hints and the midrash picks up that Yitzhak is perhaps deceived by the feigned piety of his son Esav (Rashi, Gen. 25:28). Yaakov takes advantage of his twin-brother Esav to usurp his first-born birthright. The Philistines appropriate wells of water dug by Yitzhak and his team. And the most striking deception of all: Yitzhak, elderly and blind, is tricked by his wife Rivka and son Yaakov wearing goat-skins into giving Yaakov the blessing intended for Esav – an apparent deception that Yitzhak admits ultimately reveals the truth and sets things straight as to who is really righteous and deserving of blessing. In truth, this is the work of the quality of judgment: to see through deception and illusion to discern what is real — and it’s hard work.

Truthful understanding of reality is a major theme throughout Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed:

There is nothing in existence but God and the totality of His works, bless Him, and they comprise the totality of reality except for Him. There is no way to apprehend Him except through what He has made, and they are indicative of His reality and what is necessary to believe regarding Him, that is, what should be affirmed and denied regarding Him. It is therefore necessary to consider all beings as they really are so that we may obtain for all the kinds of creatures true and accurate premises that will be useful to us in our research into the divine (1:34).

Maimonides insists that real relationship with God is only possible by way of real understanding of the world God has created and maintains, which reveals something of God’s actions. He goes on to specify the importance of all the fields of science and philosophy for a true sense of God, and criticizes those who neglect or reject the sciences and rigorous thought in favor of fantasy and illusion. He also insists that to attune our rational faculties to truth requires developing our moral qualities and training the mind: “it is impossible to achieve true rationality, perfect rationality, except by a person who is thoroughly trained in moral qualities and has mastered tranquility and stability of mind (ibid.).” Later in the book he details how the practice of mitzvot facilitates moral and intellectual development (3:25-50), and he suggests a program of meditation practice to train the mind (3:51).

Ultimately, in the concluding chapter of the Guide, Maimonides rearranges the order of elements contributing to full spiritual development in Torah life with a slight but significant shift. It’s not just that moral action contributes to truthful knowledge of God – truthful knowledge of God is necessary for real and effective moral action. He quotes a passage from Yirmiyahu:

ירמיהו פרק ט פסוק כב כג

כֹּ֣ה׀ אָמַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֗ק אַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֤ל חָכָם֙ בְּחָכְמָת֔וֹ וְאַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֥ל הַגִּבּ֖וֹר בִּגְבֽוּרָת֑וֹ אַל־יִתְהַלֵּ֥ל עָשִׁ֖יר בְּעָשְׁרֽוֹ:

כִּ֣י אִם־בְּזֹ֞את יִתְהַלֵּ֣ל הַמִּתְהַלֵּ֗ל הַשְׂכֵּל֘ וְיָדֹ֣עַ אוֹתִי֒ כִּ֚י אֲנִ֣י יְקֹוָ֔ק עֹ֥שֶׂה חֶ֛סֶד מִשְׁפָּ֥ט וּצְדָקָ֖ה בָּאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־ בְאֵ֥לֶּה חָפַ֖צְתִּי נְאֻם־יְקֹוָֽק:


Thus says the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glories glory in this, that he intuits and knows Me, that I am HaShem, doing lovingkindness, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these I delight, says HaShem. (Jer. 9: 22, 23).

After analyzing each phrase of these verses in detail, Maimonides notes that Yirmiyahu does not conclude by saying that the ultimate value is to “intuit and know” God. He doesn’t stop there, he continues that knowledge of God also includes knowledge that God values “doing lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness in the earth.” Summing up, Maimonides says:

The prophet thus, in conclusion, says, “For in these things I delight, says the Lord,” i.e., My object [in saying this] is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner we have shown (1:54) that the object of the enumeration of God’s thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired – as far as this is possible for man – the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge, he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God (3:54).

This is the very end and conclusion of Maimonides’ monumental Guide of the Perplexed. Putting it all together, Maimonides says that in coming to understand reality in truth, we can come to know God to the degree possible for human beings, and in coming to know and have intimate relationship with God in truth, we are able to act with real love, justice and righteousness in the world – that is, to really fulfill God’s mitzvot fully and correctly as He is intending them. The practice of mitzvot without this complete process is just an approximation at best. With this process and the comprehensive awareness to which it leads, each of us becomes an agent of HaShem in real-time, really doing His true Will in the world at every moment. This is the ultimate fulfillment of Torah life.

Ultimately, Yitzhak Avinu, Rachel Imeinu, and Yaakov Avinu do the hard work of justice, to see through deception and illusion, with love, judgment and righteous. May the actions of our illustrious ancestors be a guide for us, their children, to work together with real knowledge and true integrity to set the world straight.


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